EDGE Language school, industrial supplier and insurance broker win 2018 Chamber honors

EDGE Language school, industrial supplier and insurance broker win 2018 Chamber honors

March 1st, 2018 by Mike Pare and Dave Flessner in EDGE

Laurie Stevens, owner and operator of Chattanooga School of Language, speaks with Wayne Collins during the Small Business Awards Luncheon at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Chattanooga School of Language won the Small Business Award for 1-20 employees category.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

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Chamber of Commerce Small Business winners

In Hamilton County, 93 percent of all businesses have less than 50 workers.

"There's nothing small about the impact you have," Christy Gillenwater, CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, told small business leaders at the Chamber's 2018 Small Business Awards. "We are forging our future together."

A panel of judges reviewed small businesses nominated for the Chamber's annual honor and picked the top emerging small businesses in three categories:

1-20 employees - Chattanooga School of Languages

Stevens says language need grows with city's international credentials

As Chattanooga becomes more of an international city with plants and offices representing a variety of companies from far-flung places in the world, there's more of a demand for language instruction.

That's one of the foundations of Chattanooga School of Language, started in 2011 by owner Laurie Stevens.

"Work places are looking for bilingual skills among employees," says Stevens, who launched the business to fulfill a passion of her's. She attended a language school in Costa Rica in Central America and fell in love with language and cultures.

"I knew I had to do that for my profession," Stevens says. "It was life changing. Not a day goes by that I'm not grateful that I get to do my passion as a career."

The Chattanoogan came back to the Scenic City to kick off the business, beginning by offering three languages. That number has greatly expanded as the company grew from 2012 to 2016 by more than 600 percent in student enrollment, the business owner says.

Today, the company contracts with between 20 and 40 teachers depending on the situation, Stevens said. The business partners with public and private schools but also goes on site to businesses such as Volkswagen and Gestamp, teaching both German and Spanish, she says.

Stevens says sometimes people are surprised that Chattanooga has a language school, but there's a demand.

"There's a need for language for Russian, Portuguese, sign language, Korean, Turkish, Mandarin, Japanese, et cetera, in Chattanooga," she says.

Stevens says the company's instruction is for people of all ages and proficiency levels.

"There's such a demand in this town and region for high-quality language instruction and the need is only growing," he says. "I'm passionate about reaching children and students of young ages as that's when they need to start learning a language."

21 to 44 employees - Manufacturing Repair & Overstock

MRO says Chattanooga 'on the upswing'

Russell Looper and Justin Wilson say they market their Chattanooga company that sells and services industrial equipment and automated parts to a pool of about 80,000 manufacturers in America.

"We've got a huge customer base," says Wilson, citing companies such as automakers, food processors and clothing producers.

Manufacturing Repair & Overstock (MRO) has done work for about 3,000 businesses since it began in the Scenic City six years ago, according to the two co-founders.

The pair moved from Atlanta to Chattanooga to start a new business. They'd worked for a company in Atlanta in a similar line, but they wanted to launch their own company and believed it could better service customers.

MRO, which last year opened a 40,000-square-foot facility off Amnicola Highway, now employs about 40 people in Chattanooga with clients ranging from General Motors to Nissan to Anheuser-Busch.

They picked Chattanooga because they had a non-compete clause with the former company — they needed to be 100 miles away — and due to the city's proximity to the major markets of Atlanta, Knoxville, Nashville and Birmingham, the two businessmen say.

"We love the family atmosphere, the manufacturing potential and the growth of Chattanooga," says Wilson.

Looper says Chattanooga also is a "community on the upswing" in terms of small business.

"It's nice to be pushed. It's nice to see what other entrepreneurs can accomplish," he says.

After recording 300 percent revenue growth over the first few years, that figure came in at 16 percent in 2017 over the prior year as comparables get tougher, Looper says.

Wilson says MRO is hiring more sales staff in 2018 which should help drive even more growth.

"If we grew 16 percent again, it would be a tremendous year," he says.

45-200 employees: Reliance Partners

Building a new type of insurance broker

After playing football and graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Andrew Ladebauche worked as a broker for both the US Insurance Group and Cottingham & Butler when he met Access America Founder Ted Ailing.

Ailing, a serial entrepreneur who helped build a logistics handling giant in Chattanooga, convinced Ladebauche to start a new insurance brokerage firm focused on the trucking and logistics industry. Ladebauche's father worked in the trucking industry so Ladebauche, then 26 years old, decided to give it a try.

The insurance brokerage known as Reliance Partners that Ladebauche and the founders of Access America launched in Feburary 2009 has since become one of Inc. magazine's 500 fastest growing companies and expects to reach $100 million in revenues next year, only a decade after its start in a cubical inside Access America's open office.

"We really found a niche in transportation and logistics, and its an industry that I don't think a lot of general brokers have a true awareness and appreciation of," Laudebauche says."We also saw an opportunity, from what I saw at Access America, to make the insurance industry fun again from an employee standpoint and to build a work culture where people get excited and want to come to work."

The insurance broker is broadening its product lines, but it continues to share the type of open office and team-oriented sales culture that helped Access America grow into one of the country's biggest logistics handling companies before it was sold to Coyote and ultimately United Parcel Services (UPS)

Reliance Partners has increased to 63 employees with customers in 43 states, Ladebauche said. Over the past two years, the company has added new offices in Birmingham, Alabama; Victoria, Texas; Buffalo, New York; and Chicago, Illinois.

In 2017, the company generated $53 million in revenues, up from $32 million in the previous year, "and we're pacing toward $82 million in 2018. We would love to top $100 million by the end of 2019," Laudebauche says.

The company's team speaks eight different languages, markets specifically for Hispanic customers and recruits millennials as many people in the insurance industry are retiring.

"Insurance is probably not everyone's most favorite thing to purchase — probably most people can't stand it," Ladebauche quips. "We want to make Chattanooga proud of the brand we're trying to build."